Taking the GRE and Other Grad School Admission Tests

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It’s only part of your application, but taking graduate admissions tests can be one of the most stressful parts of applying to graduate school. We’re here to help you navigate it.

What tests are required for grad school admission?

Standardized tests for graduate school are long exams designed to assess your aptitude and ability to succeed in graduate school. They are long exams that test makers proctor independently from graduate schools. Graduate study-related standardized tests include the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), Miller Analogies Test (MAT), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and more. There’s also a new exam called the Executive Assessment that is geared specifically towards MBA programs and some business schools are accepting this assessment in place of GRE and GMAT test scores. Typically, you won’t have to take more than one or two of these exams.

The knowledge you need to do well on these exams may be unrelated to the knowledge you need to excel in graduate school. Because grade point averages are difficult to standardize across undergraduate colleges, tests like the GRE and others offer graduate schools a way to assess and “rank” you among your peers. Your scores on these exams are simply one more piece of the puzzle that allows graduate schools to better understand your abilities.

How will graduate schools consider my scores?

While the exam scores themselves are standardized, not every admissions committee will look at them in the same way. Some schools don’t even require taking a graduate school exam at all. After you figure out which exams you need to take for the programs you are interested in, you will want to determine their score target ranges or a median score for last year’s accepted class. Having this range in mind can help focus your study and give you guidance as you assess your performance on practice tests.

You will also want to confirm how your graduate schools will count your scores if you decide to take the exam more than once. Retaking a test can be a good idea. Many find their scores improve a second time because they have a better sense of what to expect from the exam. That said, graduate schools can view taking the exam more than once differently so it’s important to confirm with specific admissions offices. Graduate scores may also assess your scores from multiple exams in different ways. Some may average the scores together, only count a single set of scores or take the highest scores from either test as a combined best score.

For reference, GRE scores on a point scale:

  • A Verbal Reasoning score is reported on a 130–170 score scale, in 1-point increments.
  • A Quantitative Reasoning score is reported on a 130–170 score scale, in 1-point increments.
  • An Analytical Writing score is reported on a 0–6 score level, in half-point increments.

What can I do to prepare for these exams?

Take a test prep course

  • Well-known test prep companies like Kaplan or the Princeton Review provide structured group courses to prepare you for these exams. Often these courses are on the pricier side but do offer helpful practice tests as well as focused instruction time.
  • If you’re currently an undergraduate, your college may provide resources to help you study for the GRE or other popular exams. There may be a free or discounted rate for current students. Your career center, financial aid office, or academic advisor is likely to have more information about what options are available to you.

Join a study group

  • Gather your graduate school bound friends and study together to help you stay accountable to your study schedule and learn together.
  • If your peers aren’t planning to take these exams, there are often study groups through social platforms like Meetup or StudyPal.

Study with a private tutor

  • If you think one-on-one guidance may provide the best test prep support for you, it may be worthwhile to find a private tutor.
  • A tutor may be someone more informal like someone you know who’s already passed the GRE/LSAT/MCAT, a local professor tutoring on the side for extra income, or a full-time professional tutor.
  • You can look up professional tutoring companies in your area, or check online listings.

No matter how you choose to prepare, it’s a good idea to purchase or borrow test prep books from your library or friend. Try to access the most recent versions you can since they will reflect changes made to the exams recently. Resources like these books typically include some sample tests. You may also be able to find free sample tests online.

How to take the test

If you register for the computer-based test, you take the exam at a local testing center. The ETS website will have the most updated list of where to take the exam and what times may be available. As you make your testing appointments keep in mind:

  • It’s advantageous to schedule an appointment far in advance. Test centers get especially booked as graduate school deadlines near.
  • Consider when you feel most alert and at your mental best - are you a morning or afternoon person? Does the time of your exam give you enough time to have a meal or snack beforehand?

Sending your test scores to schools

Sending policies may vary depending on the exam so be sure to review the ETS instructions directly for the most updated and applicable information. Typically you can select a few schools to send your scores to for free and then pay a fee for each additional recipient.

We wish you all the best as you begin studying and preparing for these exams.


Planning on returning to school? Check out our Grad School Resources and connect directly with social-impact programs through Idealist. And if you’re interested in speaking with an admissions representative, find out which cities near you are hosting an Idealist Grad School Fair this fall.